As activists and advocates who work on different issues facing our community, we see firsthand why so often good pieces of legislation never make it into law. Whether the issue is energy, sustainable development, housing, or good government, the rubber always meets the road in the details of what special interests are giving how-much-money to whom.
While this happens obviously at the federal and state levels, it also happens at the county level. Just like state legislators, county councilors need to raise money to get elected, and they need to raise a lot of it. You can bet your bottom dollar that candidates aren’t getting that money from you, everyday citizen. Nope, they get that money from places where there’s plenty of it: from industry lobbyists or special interests.
This creates a kind of vicious cycle with the public. Citizens see that industry lobbyists give money, and they see a lot of good legislation that doesn’t pass, because it might affect the profit margins of already wealthy corporations. This connection between money and policy is not a big secret; it’s totally obvious, and it makes people cynical about the whole process. It makes people choose to not participate, and the less people participate and pay attention to what’s going on, the easier it is for special interests to influence the law-making process.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem, and it’s a good one: Voter Owned Elections, or “clean elections.”
The organization Voter Owned Hawaii and its coalition of organizations are working to pass House Bill 661-HD1 this legislative session. This bill would create a public funding option for candidates for all county council races across the islands.
Instead of raising money from developers, chemical, oil and real estate companies, a candidate would instead have the choice of qualifying for public funds. By collecting a significant number of signatures, accompanied with $5 contributions, a candidate can prove that they have community support. Public funding of public elections will help candidates spend time on issues, not on raising money.
Ultimately, this program would invigorate elections and increase participation, save taxpayer money by allowing for more pro-public bills to pass, and allow candidates to spend more time with their constituents and less time dialing for dollars from industry lobbyists. It’s really a win-win situation, and taxpayers actually will save money in the long run, because all the corporate donations just get passed on to consumers.
Kaua‘i’s representatives, Roland Sagum, James Tokioka and Hermina Morita, need to push for HB 661-HD1 to pass and help change the way this “pay-to-play” system works at the county level.
The voting public would only stand to benefit, and legislators themselves will have more options to decide how they want to run their campaigns.
• Carol Bain is president of the League of Women Voters Kaua‘i County, lives in Lihu‘e and is currently running for the board of the Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative.